American Translators Association Chronicle | April 1996

In Search of the Right Equivalent for Educational Degrees: Bridging the Gap or Creating False Expectations?

By Silvia M. Slack

I ran into a snag recently working on a translation of a diploma. I was translating a foreign diploma that was to be submitted as part of an application for immigration. I wanted to know how to best translate the name of a degree that had no direct U.S. equivalent. So I called Joe, an evaluator with over 20 years’ experience in the admissions of a university that has a high volume of foreign applicants. Joe told me this is one of the areas where translators make the most mistakes, since they often do not know how to compare different educational systems. His advice: “Don’t interpret or choose a U.S. equivalent. Be as literal as possible.”

When is it advisable to be literal and when is it not? In Argentina I attended a bilingual elementary school (K-7) that was called Colegio Guillermo Enrique Hudson in Spanish and William Henry Hudson College in English. The name of my high school (8-12th grade) was Colegio Nacional San Isidro “Dr. Antonio Sagarna,” and the degree I was granted was bachiller. If I were to transliterate or even cite the names of the elementary and secondary schools I attended in Argentina, some might think I entered college at six and graduated from high school at five. In a recent review of several hundred resumes providing information on foreign degrees to a U.S. audience, I found that not a single translator followed Joe's advice. There are various ways translators can tackle this issue.

Classification of translation approaches used in resumes

Unless otherwise stated (as U.S. accredited), the degrees listed below are assumed to be English translations of the degrees that were actually granted, which would have been worded in the language of the non-English speaking country in which they were earned. Furthermore, this classification is based on the assumption that most non-English speaking countries have educational systems that are quite different from that of the U.S. and that the universities in those countries do not grant degrees identified as a B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. per se. The questions posed when examining the adequacy of each approach can be summarized as follows: How does the target audience (in this case, a U.S. reader not acquainted with the educational system of the country in which the degree was granted) interpret the information provided by the translator? Does the information provided by the translator bridge the gap between two different educational systems, or create false expectations regarding its equivalence?

Approach No. 1: Translation of the name of a foreign degree without a citation of the degree in the original language:

Under this approach I have included several ways in which translators refer to foreign degrees where there is no direct quotation of the degree in a language other than English.

A. Substitution of the actual name of the foreign degree with name of a U.S. degree:

Under the substitution category, I have listed examples in which translators of the foreign degree  have listed the degree in English, as a bachelor’s, master's, or Ph.D. This approach could also be described as an attempt to use a dynamic or functional equivalent.

  • “Industrial Engineer (BSIE) - Universidad de la Habana, La Habana, Cuba.”
  • “Bachelor’s degree: Law & Administration, Algiers, Algeria."
  • "Universita di Urbino, Urbino, Italy. BA. Major: Sociology."


Critique: A U.S. company looking to hire someone licensed to practice a particular profession in a given country, or someone familiar with the terminology used by professionals trained in the language of that country, would find the information provided in these entries insufficient. On the other hand, another company looking for U.S. graduates might think degrees listed in this fashion were granted by American universities overseas. The problem with this approach, then, is that it can create false expectations.

B. Paraphrase or explanatory translation:

Here I include references to translations of foreign degrees in which the translator has provided a broad or explanatory translation of the name of the degree without linking the degree to a particular degree in the U.S.

  • “Degree in Business Administration- Engineering.  H.T.S. College, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, (4 Languages: French, German, English, and Dutch). A four-year higher business/technical education, accredited by the government of The Netherlands.”
  • “Degree in Modem Foreign languages and Literatures (Languages studied: English and French)— University of Palermo, Italy. Qualified as a Teacher of English Language and Literature in Italian Secondary and High Schools.”

Critique: By using this approach, the translator attempts to bridge the gap between the U.S. and the foreign educational system in question, but does not attempt to determine which is the actual equivalent in the U.S. However, someone familiar with the language and educational system of the country might want to know the exact name of the degree. Also, certain documents might require a shorter option.

C. A combination of the previous two approaches (paraphrase translation and substitution of the foreign degree with a U.S. degree):

Here I include references to translations of foreign degrees that combine the two translation approaches listed under categories A and B above.

  • Translation, Interpretation, and International Business Diploma, [three years enrollment], Lille, France. Ecole Supérieure de Traduction, Interprétariat et Commerce Extérieur (ESTICE). Equivalent to Bachelor [...]. 
  • “Sprachen and Dometscher-Institut, Munich, Germany. Degree in English and French as translator/interpreter (Comparable to United States Bachelor of Arts). Specialized in business and law.”

Critique: An evaluator might not agree with the statement “equivalent to Bachelor" in the first example above, but might accept “comparable to United States’ Bachelor of Arts,” as stated in the second example. Again, any reference to equivalency with the U.S. can create the false expectation of being accredited in the U.S.

Approach No. 2: Citation of the name of the degree in the original language, followed by an English translation of the degree:

Under this second approach, I include references to foreign degrees in which the translator follows a direct quotation of the name of the degree in the foreign language with some type of translation of that name into English.

  • “Università di Roma (Rome, Italy). Dottore (Doctor) in Giurisprudenza (J.D.). Università di Napoli (Naples, Holy). Dottore (Doctor) in Scienze P. & S. (Ph.D.)."
  • "'Dottore in Economia e Commercio’ (Economics and Finance); University of Florence, Italy.”
  • “Baccalauréat A1 (Literature and Mathematics). French High School Degree."

Critique: In the first example, the translator chose to equate the degree Dottore in Giurisprudenza granted in Italy with a J.D. in the U.S. Based on the information received on the use of the term "dottore" for other degrees in Italy (such as the dottore in sociologia mentioned above), equating this degree to a J.D. might be appropriate. In other words, a "dottore in giurisprudenza" does not hold a prior law degree. Why did the same translator choose to equate a Dottore in Scienze P & S to a Ph.D.? Does a Dottore in Scienze P & S hold a prior degree? Is this degree required specifically to teach at the university? The translator who quoted the degree Dottore in Economia e Commercio provided an explanatory translation instead of a direct equivalency with a U.S. degree. However, it is quite likely that the reader will transliterate Dottore into “doctor” or “Ph.D." and conclude that this particular Dottore holds a prior university degree. Is that the case or not? To avoid any misunderstandings, the translator should clarify whether this particular person does or does not hold a prior university degree.

The last example provides enough information for the French speaker, and an explanation for someone not acquainted with the French educational system.

Approach No. 3: Description of the degree in its original language without direct citation of the degree, followed by a translation of the degree:

Under this category I have included references to degrees in which the name of the degree is not quoted literally, but rather in a descriptive way, as if one were to say: “I obtained my law degree from Georgetown.”

  • "Laurea in Fisica, University of Palermo, Italy (graduate degree equivalent to a Master’s degree in Physics)."


Critique: The term "laurea" is a broad term meaning degree and is used in diplomas before the actual name of the specific degree. A native of the country of the university that issued the degree or someone acquainted with the educational system of that country might want more information.Is this degree the first possible university degree attainable in that field (in the example above, physics) or is it a post-graduate degree?

Approach No. 4: Citation of the institution where the degree was obtained (with the name of the institution in its original language or translated), without direct reference to the name of the degree obtained, with or without a clear indication on whether the degree was obtained or not:

Here I include all references to studies overseas that do not quite specify what degree was obtained, or even whether it was obtained at all.

  • “Escuela Nacional Normal Superior; Concepción del Uruguay, Argentina; majored in English Grammar and Anglo-American Culture.”
  • “Liceo Laurana, Urbino, Italy. Graduated [month and year]. Studies: Science and History.”
  • “Colegio Nacional San Isidro, Dr. Antonio Sagarna, Buenos Aires, Argentina."

Critique: The three examples provided are high school degrees, but a reader who is lacking fluency in the language of those countries or unacquainted with their educational system would not know this without additional information. The third example (my own, I regret to say) has lead some U.S. readers to conclude that I have a college degree from Argentina.


If you thought that translating an educational degree was simple, you have probably changed your mind by now. One thing is clear: Translators do not apply a uniform set of criteria when translating degrees into English. My recommendation is to review the different translation approaches in use and weigh their pros and cons from the point of view of the target audience, identifying any possible false expectations that each approach might create before chosing a particular approach. The following guidelines can be helpful:

  1. State the name of the degree and of the university in the original language as it appears on the diploma.
  2. If the foreign university is accredited in the U.S., say so. If not, do not equate the foreign degree to a U.S. degree.
  3. Review the number of years and type of coursework involved to obtain the foreign degree. Investigate licensing procedures and work opportunities for someone with that degree in the country it was granted. Compare it to probable equivalent degrees in the country of the target audience (in this case, the U.S.).
  4. Use transliteration (cognates) sparingly and with great care. If there is an available cognate, review all of the meanings attached to it, and compare. If the transliteration does not create false expectations, use it. If it creates problems (such as dottore in reference to first terminal university degrees in a certain discipline), use it only when a literal translation is strictly required, as in the translation of a diploma for an immigration application. In such cases, make sure to add a “Translator’s Note" indicating the special use of that term in that country.
  5. When the citation of the degree in the original language may lead the reader to transliterate and arrive at false conclusions, add an explanatory translation highlighting the differences between the foreign degree and its transliteration.
  6. When no transliteration is possible, provide a generic broad translation and add an explanatory translation or paraphrase with the most relevant information (years of study, professional recognition, etc.).

These guidelines are meant to be applied primarily to resumes but may be relevant to other documents as well. There are cases in which it might not be appropriate to take too much space to explain the degree and state the name in both languages. Attorneys licensed overseas and not in the U.S. but working for U.S. law firms, typically indicate on their cards and correspondence “attorney licensed in (name of country) only,” and do not use the initials J.D. A similar approach can be used for any other profession with a licensing process. I would be glad to hear any comments you may have based on your own experiences with these issues. 

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